Years ago, before I even knew the word introvert, I knew that I really enjoyed spending time alone. In fact, I needed a certain amount of time to myself in order to stay sane. I was fine with this. Truth is, I was at my most creative and clear-headed when I was alone, which I saw as a major advantage.
Once I learned what an introvert was, it was obvious to me that I was one of them. At the time, I wasn’t sure how anyone could be otherwise (or why anyone would want to be).
Then I learned what an extrovert was. It was clear that extraversion also came with its own set of advantages. Understanding this trait helped explain behavior I found baffling, such as the need some people had to constantly talk, even when there was nothing to say.
Why personality is important
In many ways, we are all blinded by our own temperaments. We are each wired in a certain way, which makes it difficult for us to see how others can see the world so differently from us. If you’ve ever taken a personality test and came across a question that made you ask incredulously: “Who in the world would answer yes (or no) to this question?!” then you’ve proven my point.
For clarity, temperament refers to the inborn, biologically-based personality traits that are observable even in infancy. You can think of it as the foundation for personality. It’s the “nature” part of the nature-nurture equation. Introversion is an example of a temperament.
On the other hand, personality refers more broadly to the mixture of traits that result from the interaction of environment and temperament. In other words, it’s the “nurture” part of the nature-nurture equation.
Personality isn’t some superficial aspect of who we are. It has strong a genetic component and accounts not just for differences in opinion, but in the fundamental ways in which we view the world and interpret events.
Personality psychology is important because it gives us a framework for understanding why we are the way we are and why other people are the way they are. This is critical for cultivating more harmonious relationships, both with others and with ourselves.
Of the various traits that psychologists study, the Introversion-Extraversion spectrum is the most important because it is the central building block of personality. It is also the most pervasive, showing up even in the animal kingdom.
This critical personality dimension gives us the most information about what kind of person someone is. Where you rate on this spectrum determines how you respond to social situations, what kind of partner you gravitate toward, and even what career you’ll choose.
A personality dimension is a foundational aspect of personality that encompasses multiple traits. Extraversion, for example, is the personality dimension that encompasses traits like talkative, sociable, enthusiastic, and gregarious.
There’s a great book by Susan Cain about Introversion that has helped me understand myself better. It’s called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.
My friend and and fellow introvert Jonathan Fields first recommended this book to me a few years ago. (Jonathan was on my podcast and talked about doing meaningful work and understanding yourself better. You can listen to his episode here).
Whether you’re an introvert or extrovert, you’ll love this book. If you consider yourself an introvert, you’ll likely find yourself nodding along in agreement and feeling like she’s in your head in many places. And if you’ve ever felt like something was wrong with you for being the way you are, you’ll find her descriptions and explanations of introverted behavior both comforting and normalizing.
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What exactly is an introvert?
To be clear, people are not all one thing. Nobody is entirely an introvert, or entirely an extrovert. In psychology, personality dimensions exist on a spectrum. (Technically, the Introversion-Extraversion spectrum is just called Extraversion and so-called Introverts are said to be “low in extraversion.” We’ll just stick to the term introvert for now.)
To understand introverts, it's useful to look at them in relation to their extroverted counterparts. In her book, Cain describes this contrast:
“Introverts are drawn to the inner world of thought and feeling...extroverts to the external life of people and activities. Introverts focus on the meaning they make of the events swirling around them; extroverts plunge into the events themselves. Introverts recharge their batteries by being alone; extroverts need to recharge when they don’t socialize enough.”
An important point she makes is that the word introvert is not a synonym for an antisocial person. Disliking people or being shy are not features of Introversion. These traits are more closely associated with the personality dimension Neuroticism, which I will cover in a future post.
Of course, introverts can be shy...but so can extroverts. In a social context, being an introvert simply means that you have a tendency to become overstimulated by social situations more easily than extroverts.
Clearly, environment also plays a role in how a given personality trait manifests, but that’s another story for another time.
Be who you are.
In her book, Cain talks about a cultural phenomenon she calls The Extrovert Ideal, which she describes as “the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight.” She argues that, at least in Western culture, Introversion and its reserved qualities are not as appreciated as Extraversion and its more outgoing qualities.
But, as she's quick to point out, “Some of our greatest ideas, art, and inventions -- from the theory of evolution to van Gogh’s sunflowers to the personal computer -- came from quiet and cerebral people who knew how to tune in to their inner worlds and the treasures to be found there.”
When I read this, it reminded me how important it is to work with our temperament rather than against it -- to understand and embrace our nature so that we can leverage it to our advantage. This is how we cultivate our unique gifts and share them with the world. Learning about our individual personality traits gives us “permission” to be who we truly are.
Famous introverts and extroverts
Think about the historical figures and cultural icons that have shaped history. The work they have produced is usually the result of them leaning into their temperament. Consider the following examples:
If Isaac Newton was out socializing instead of thinking quietly and observing his environment, he might have never noticed the apple that fell from that tree which led to his discovery of gravitational theory.
On the other end of the spectrum, if people like Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres had kept to themselves instead of sharing their enthusiasm, sense of humor, and sociable nature with the world, we would be without the cultural contributions or decades of entertainment they’ve given us.
Let’s look at another set of individuals: spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle and motivational speaker Tony Robbins. They show up in the world in completely different ways, yet both have inspired millions, myself included.
But if Eckhart spent his time trying to be a gregarious, enthusiastic, charismatic speaker like Tony, he would likely not have created the insightful and profoundly spiritual works he is known for.
Conversely, if Tony spun his wheels trying to be a more reserved, contemplative, spiritual philosopher like Eckhart, he would have deprived the world of his uncanny ability to connect with people and his engaging speaking style that has transformed countless lives.
Trying to be someone you’re not is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.
Find mentors you can relate to.
It’s easier to manifest your potential when the people you are modeling are similar to you where it matters.
It took me years to come to terms with the fact that just because I don’t have the same skill set as someone I admire, doesn’t mean I don’t have the right skill set.
For example, I deeply admire Gary Vaynerchuk. I respect his life philosophy and I think he has an incredible drive and work ethic. However, being one of the more extreme extroverts I’ve observed, he has a completely different temperament than I do. He’s most alive when he’s engaging with people and has lots of external stimulation. This literally energizes him. Naturally, his career, speaking style, and lifestyle reflect this aspect of his personality: he creates tons of dynamic video content, speaks forcefully and loudly, and has created a business with massive infrastructure...all of which sound terribly unappealing to me. When it comes to these areas of life, he’s not necessarily a person I look to for guidance.
Tim Ferriss, on the other hand, is someone who has influenced me tremendously in all of these areas. Like Gary, he’s a wildly successful entrepreneur and author, but unlike Gary, his businesses have almost no infrastructure. This lessens the chance he will experience overstimulation or unnecessary interactions. (I modeled this “solopreneur” approach when creating my own business). Also, Tim’s careful, calculated style of speaking has shown me that I don’t need to be a fast-talking, dynamic speaker in order to be someone worth listening to.
This doesn’t mean you can never change aspects of your personality. You can, but only within the limits that your temperament allows. Eckhart Tolle will never become as charismatic or high-energy as Tony Robbins, no matter how many Toastmasters classes he attends. Think of your personality like an unstretched rubber band. You can stretch it, but only so much.
Defining yourself vs. confining yourself
One argument against personality typing is that “when you define yourself, you confine yourself.” I think just the opposite is true. The way I see it, when you define yourself, you liberate yourself. You understand yourself better and become more self-aware. You become more confident in your strengths and more accepting of your weaknesses. This leads to self-acceptance, self-confidence, and self-love.
The same is true when it comes to others. When you understand the kind of person someone is and why they do the things they do, it leads to more compassion, more understanding, and ultimately, more productive relationships.
Where we fall on the Introversion-Extroversion spectrum says a lot about who we are and how we show up in the world, however, it is still only one aspect of personality.
In my next blog post, I’ll explain the Big Five personality model, which provides a much broader and nuanced description of the various other traits that make up each of our personalities.